Vampires, revenants, the undead. Few nightmare creatures, next to zombies, have managed to enthral the public as those blood-sucking fiends of the dark. Once, monstrous reanimated corpses with an unquenchable thirst for blood, now agonised anti-heroes promising a life of beauty and danger and yes, moral quandaries while bemoaning the loss of their mortal coil. Through the years and their various incarnations we’ve stayed with them, nurtured them, and even when their popularity waned, succoured them in secret.
Modern entertainment is awash with them in all their sundry forms: books, comics, movies and videogames. The vampire is an ancient fear, now paraded as desirous, that’s here to stay. And we wouldn’t chase away the thrill, the frisson of danger, for anything. If anything, we relish the opportunity to view the world through those predatory eyes.
As a fan of Hammer horror movies, penny dreadful’s and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I was hoping that somewhere along the line I’d come across a vampire game set during those timelines as well. One that would be drenched in the moody atmosphere of London’s mist-enshrouded streets and wet cobble-stone pavements.
Set during 1918, in those moody streets of London, Dontnod’s action/RPG game, Vampyr places you in the shoes of Dr. Jonathan Reid, a newly minted creature of the night. The Spanish flu is ravaging the streets of London and Reid is out to save the city while also contending with the insatiable hunger of the vampire. How far will he, and the player, go to satisfy his hunger for the greater good? And will it matter if the cost of doing so is becoming a monster?That’s the central question and gameplay hook that characterises Vampyr’s best moments in this moody and atmosphere rich game.
Vampyr channels the best, and sometimes, the worst that the penny dreadful’s were full of while doing its best to make Gothic horror videogames a thing again. The game wastes no time in plunging you into the terrible fate that awakens Reid amidst a pile of corpses, setting the tone for the game's personal nature and setting up an emotional callback to that heart wrenching opening much later.
From there though, the game's pacing is handed over to the player and the rate at which the story progresses falls upon your own playstyle. But even with the pace on the reigns slackened, Vampyr doesn’t lose focus on its central goal of creating a more personal, somewhat intimate narrative driven adventure even when the stakes for London's fate spirals higher later in the story.
Dontnod want you to know that the game is about the people around you. It’s their story as much as it is yours and their fate is intertwined with your strength and that of London's future. The people matter, even the crappy ones, even if only as a hors d’oeuvre.
Vampyr’s real strength lies in its narrative and its cast of characters. Across London's beleaguered districts you’ll encounter a colourful cast of characters with their own distinctive voices and stories that you can’t fully piece together in one chat. They affect the status of the districts in which they reside, can be a part of the main story and might have an entire questline of their own to plunge through.
They also represent the best meal that you’re going to get in the game. Do you feed on them to get the major experience boost they provide, or do you keep them alive to see where their stories go and to prevent the district from plunging into monster-infused chaos? There are consequences to you actions and no do-overs for these big moments.
Vampyr’s difficulty is tied into your moral choices. The more you power up your character, the easier the game will become but at the cost of London's “health” status. Keep a district nice and healthy by not snacking on the citizens and you’ll see fewer enemies lurking the streets. But you’ll also be weaker and have to fight higher-level enemies in the damaged districts such as Whitechapel. Kill them and there will be more vampire hunters and other monsters roaming the area.
The game's auto-save system is designed to make sure you can’t reload a save to change those big choices. Once you’ve made them, you’re going to have to deal with the consequences of those actions, and the monsters and hunters fighting amongst themselves and against you. Just how much is changed within the narrative by taking lives is something I want to explore during another playthrough.
Couple that with mostly strong writing that occasionally falls into ludicrous penny dreadful lines, and strong voice acting, and Dontnod have made it incredibly difficult to go full dark. I found myself keeping alive as many of the citizens as I could, to hear their stories and complete their sidequests as I wanted to keep London as healthy as possible. Even the criminals, who I wanted to kill on principle alone, stayed my executioners hand.
Citizens have a blood level meter as well which shows how much XP you’ll get from each of them. Disease and sickness affect the quality of the blood, which adds another layer of moral dubiousness to the game. Do you cure them of their ailments because it’s what you’ve sworn to do as a doctor, or because the healthier they are, the more you benefit from your Bloody Mary?
When you’re not talking, you’ll be exploring London, picking up money and crafting items, and engaging in plentiful combat against vampire hunters and other supernatural creatures.
Combat is Vampyr's weakest point. It isn’t terrible, just adequate. At its most basic level, the combat system is designed around a slower, more methodical approach to fighting that relies on patience, dodging, parrying, stunning and attacking. It’s a simple system that, as with the story, hides a fair amount of depth but only if you choose to make use of it.
Reid’s vampire powers, purchased through experience, allow for the basics of increasing health and stamina, while unlocking some more exotic abilities like blood arrows and shields. Throw them into combat, which usually places you against multiple enemies in tight locations, and you’ve got a nice variety for tactical use. However, if you’d rather just continuously club something to death, you can do that as well.
There’s a decent variety of weapons, which can be upgraded and imbued with perks through a very simple crafting system. You can wield two weapons at the same time or one double-handed weapon. There’s a specific use for each weapon, such as guns whose primary use is to stun enemies so that you can bite them and suck their blood in combat, or knives which immediately cause blood drain on the enemies.
Abilities require blood to use, which is your mana basically, and can be topped up in combat or with serums. Attacking and dodging drain your stamina meter so you have to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Enemies move quite quickly so you do have to stay on your toes.
Technically, Vampyr could have done with some more time in development, as it’s prone to frame rate drops and long loading times overall. There were some bugs that prevented me from activating cutscenes at times and occasionally the game would hang. Facial animation outside of the major players, tends to be rather basic, which is at odds with the great voice acting when the character looks like a puppet while spouting their lines. None of these issues are gamebreaking or stopped me from enjoying the overall experience though.
The one area that Vampyr disappointed me in though, is also the area it excels in. Despite promising a tougher experience for not taking lives willy-nilly, I never felt as though that were an issue. Killing Skals (diseased vampires) and vampire hunters, reading journals and completing quests always provided me with more than enough XP to level up, though at a slower rate. I wish that Dontnod had increased the pressure of these situations and provided me with more immediate needs to pull the proverbial trigger. I think it would have made all these fantastic character moments even more poignant.
Vampyr is a fantastically atmospheric game, with amazing set dressing and a narrative that champions good, character driven stories. Playing through it felt like playing an older Bioware game, circa Neverwinter Nights and Knights of The Old Republic, and I think that’s pretty high praise indeed.
Reviewed on Xbox One.
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Focus Home Interactive
PC, PS4, Xbox One
5 June 2018
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